The Charger Blog

Mechanical Engineering Students Brave Frigid Temps, Snow Working on $1.2 Million Department of Energy Project

Students are installing a monitoring system they designed on commercial building air conditioning systems throughout the state as part of a project that could help to reduce energy waste across the country.

May 9, 2019

By Jackie Hennessey, contributing writer

Image of engineering students
engineering students

The outdoor temperatures were in the low teens, and the rooftop where they would spend the next two days working was covered with several inches of snow.

But Annika Hacker ’19 M.S., a graduate student in mechanical engineering, and Prathamesh Patil ’19, a mechanical engineering major, donned lots of layers and warm gloves and headed to the roof at Alinabal, a manufacturing company in Milford, working with technicians from M&O Corporate, a Connecticut-based HVAC company, installing a monitoring system that the student team had created for the company’s air conditioning equipment.

"Our students were eager and ready to do the work," which included installing 30 sensors on Alinabal’s rooftop air conditioning system, says Ravi Gorthala, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of mechanical engineering. "They learned how to design the sensor and instrumentation system, order the equipment, assemble and program the entire monitoring system in the lab, pre-test the system, and install it in the field. They’ve also learned how to communicate and coordinate with HVAC technicians and interact with facilities staff."

The project at Alinabal is part of an ambitious three-year U.S. Department of Energy project that aims to make commercial companies’ heating, cooling, ventilation, and refrigeration systems operate more efficiently. Dr. Gorthala and a team of graduate and undergraduate students are installing sensors on commercial building air conditioning systems around the state.

The $1.2 million grant is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, with cost sharing from United Illuminating and Eversource through funds from Energize CT. The University of Connecticut and United Technologies Research Center are subcontractors.

"It is a sprawling, three-pronged project focusing on stakeholder education, outreach, and workforce development," Dr. Gorthala says.

In a U.S. Department of Energy statement, David Nemtzow, director of the DOE’s Building Technologies Office, said the work aims to "improve our nation’s commercial building stock and cut energy bills for American businesses."

"We are on the other side – educating others – which I never thought would happen."Annika Hacker ’19 M.S.

When Dr. Gorthala heard that Alinabal – a leading manufacturer of a diverse span of products including precision stampings and assemblies, spherical rod end bearing and linkage assemblies, special purpose printers, aircraft instrumentation, and advanced laser shutters – was interested in participating, "we jumped at the opportunity," he says.

The students met longtime University benefactor Samuel S. Bergami '85 EMBA, '02 Hon., president, CEO and co-owner of Alinabal Holdings Corp., and they worked closely with James O'Brien, Alinabal’s director of facilities.

"Mr. O'Brien and his staff were extremely cooperative and encouraging of our students," Dr. Gorthala says.

Hacker and Patil worked on the roof while Mohammed Albayati ’16 M.S., who is pursuing a Ph.D. at UConn, worked remotely and on site on process evaluation.

"Being on the roof during the winter is always tough, but you realize that the install needs to get done, so you just power through it," says Hacker. "Every install is different because you never really know what to fully expect in terms of accessibility and or difficulty in mounting the sensors, so it is very important to think on your feet and come up with solutions on the fly."

"It is a sprawling, three-pronged project focusing on stakeholder education, outreach, and workforce development."Ravi Gorthala, Ph.D.

The end result – helping owners of commercial buildings decrease energy use – is vitally important, Dr. Gorthala says. "Commercially available fault-detection and diagnosis tools can be used to detect faults and let the owners or HVAC contractors know so they can look at the units, fix them, and achieve significant energy savings," he says. "Renewable energy resources are the future and very important. But before we tap into them, we have to make our existing systems energy efficient so we use less energy."

Hacker calls the work very rewarding. "It is so much fun seeing the employees or building owners or even contractors show interest in what we are doing and ask questions about the project, the process, and the goals," Hacker says. "We are on the other side – educating others – which I never thought would happen."